Gaming Frequencies: Gorogoa

Jun 20, 2018 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share

Do you recall those little sliding puzzles you played with as a kid? The ones with the picture divided up into plastic squares, one piece missing. First you’d slide the panels around until the larger image made no sense, and then you'd work hard to reassemble them in the right order. Because you only had one empty space to work around, these were always much harder to solve than you’d think they would be. (At least, that was always my case.) 

Gorogoa is a game that builds upon those old slider puzzles in ingenious ways. The screen is split into four square panels; not only can pieces can be slid horizontally or vertically, but zoomed in and out of. For example, if a panel depicts a window looking out upon a castle tower, you could tap the window to move through it, and then the panel would depict a close-up image of the castle. Tap the tower’s window and you’ll move to an image of the room inside. As you move these squares about, they’ll interact with each other in intriguing ways. For example, when you match planes between two seemingly unrelated images, a character will be able to walk from one panel to the next. Occasionally, you can even remove a layer of a tile, reviewing a new one underneath, and later combining it with another to make an all-new image. It’s an incredibly clever puzzle to piece together: one that’s a challenging brain game which never becomes overly obtuse or frustrating. There’s a rare and beautiful balance in Gorogoa's difficulty level.

If the mechanics of Gorogoa’s gameplay are impressive, its aesthetic is even more so. The game is the result of five years’ hard work by one designer, Jason Roberts, who came up with the game’s narrative as well as hand-illustrated and digitally colored every single of its images himself. This gives the game a stunning look, and in a sense it feels a lot like a graphic novel – albeit, one that is fully interactive and puzzle-oriented – with its true emotional resonance and how thoroughly Roberts’ personal thumbprint can be felt throughout. The sound design and music by Eduardo Ortiz Frau and Joel Corelitz respond to how you complete the puzzles, and perfectly complement Roberts’ art.

Gorogoa is newly available on Xbox One and PS4, joining previous releases for the Switch, iOS, through and on Steam. Designer Jason Roberts answered our questions about his long-in-the-making project.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: The first thing a player will notice is that Gorogoa is visually gorgeous. Can you tell me about your background as an artist?

Jason Roberts, designer: I had no particular training as an artist, I just did a lot of drawing in my spare time. Because of that, my technical skills are still pretty uneven -- I'm a lot better at drawing some things than others. But luckily as a game designer, I can design to my strengths as an artist! I also did so much drawing in the course of making the game that I improved considerably in the process.

Gorogoa tells a semi-abstract but beautiful narrative over the course of a very clever series of tile puzzles. Which idea came first: the story you wanted to tell in Gorogoa, or the method of gameplay? And what was the biggest challenge of marrying the two ideas?

In effect, the gameplay came first. Or rather, over time the story and themes evolved to fit the gameplay. The mechanics of a game like Gorogoa have certain expressive features built in, and those features are better suited to some stories and themes than they are to others. In any project, it often takes a while to discover what the story really wants to be about, even if you think you know at the outset. An unusual mechanic can help point the way to a corner of the narrative landscape that you might not have explored otherwise. The mechanics become a tool for discovering a story. The biggest challenge for me was accepting this, letting go of preconceived notions about story and feeling my way gradually to ideas that thematically matched the gameplay.

The puzzles tie together seamlessly in the game, and several of them took me quite a long time to crack. Are you willing to share the puzzle that was the trickiest for you, as the designer, to assemble?

I suppose the most complex puzzles to assemble were the falling rock puzzle and the clock tower puzzle, both from the third chapter. Both puzzles involve more interactions between tiles as part of a single extended puzzle than anywhere else the game. Both puzzles are fairly simple in concept, all the complexity was in making the pieces actually fit together. Maybe this contrast was the greatest in the case of the falling rock puzzle, which is an almost absurdly simple idea, but making all the different scenes align properly involved a lot of work and lot of discarded concepts.

The sound and score in the game are subtle but are perfectly suited for the game's tone. The final credits list three people: yourself, sound designer Eduardo Ortiz Frau, and composer Joel Corelitz. After working on the game solitarily for so long, can you describe your experience bringing on collaborators?

I knew from relatively early on that I wasn't going to be able to handle sound or music myself. I tried my hand at sound design when making the original demo, and while it was an enjoyable exercise, I quickly understood how much expertise I lacked. And music was something I never thought for a moment I could do myself.

The possibility of total creative control over a project can be a seductive fantasy, but can also be stifling if overindulged. There are some places you simply can't go alone. I think letting go of some control can lead to a healthier relationship to the work. So I was happy to relinquish some creative ownership, especially in areas that were beyond my competency!

With the level of detail you put into every other aspect of the game, I imagine you might have had a very clear idea of how the game should sound. Were there directions or parameters you gave them for their contributions?

Actually, my goal in working with Joel and Eduardo was to give them as much creative freedom as possible. In the case of music, I wanted someone with their own vision, who could help me discover what sort of score felt right. Joel was the perfect creative partner in this regard, and the real inspiration in the game's score was his, not mine. Similarly, Eduardo had a lot of creative leeway in the design of soundscapes, and I often discovered something totally new about the feel of a scene after hearing his sound design. I gave both Joel and Eduardo high-level direction, but most of the specific creative decisions they made were their own.

It's been roughly six months now since the game's initial release. After five years of labor over the game, has that given you the proper distance to step back and be able to appreciate your hard work?

I'm slowly gaining that distance, but I'm not sure I'm there yet. It's still very hard for me to look at the game the way I would someone else's. Gorogoa still feels like a mass of decisions (some of which I still question), and the ghosts of discarded ideas, and little failings or victories that no one else will ever notice. It'll be a while before I can look back at it as simply a game.



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